Last year at Northeast Regionals my team (PoNY) was playing Bodhi to go to Nationals. Game tied at 12s, time cap approaching, PoNY is on defense. Bodhi goes on a fast break with a quick succession of give-go throws—"Pick!" someone yells—and the last throw, a huck, falls incomplete. The two teams start to argue. Was the pick two throws ago, or one? Does the disc go back to Bodhi, or is it a turnover? The outcome of the game might turn on this call. The teams immediately appeal to the observer, who rules that the pick was two throws ago: Bodhi's disc. Then Russell Wallack, one of Bodhi's handlers, jogs over and enters the discussion. "I was right behind the play and saw the whole thing. The pick happened on the last throw. It's PoNY's disc." The observer had just ruled in his team's favor, but Russell effectively overturns the call. His teammates look at him in disbelief as PoNY takes possession. Then they get a D and earn their goal.
Players like Russell have taught me that, all other definitions aside, the Spirit of the Game means two things: self-respect and mental toughness.
The best players treat competition as an opportunity for them to measure their greatness. Imagine a set of scales: you and your team are on one end, your opponents on the other. The fulcrum is made of the rules of the game. If you break the rules, you unbalance the scales and lose the accuracy of the measurement. If you belittle your opponents, you lose your counterweight, and diminish the meaning of any success you might have. (Your win doesn't mean very much if "they suck.") In order to evaluate yourself and your team honestly—that is, to have self-respect—you have to treat your opponents and the rules with respect, and even gratitude. Without them, you can't measure your greatness.
I don't know if this thought, or anything like it, was going through Russell's head when he reversed that observer's call. But I can tell you that Russell is one of the most consistent and mentally tough players I've encountered—and I'm convinced sportsmanship is a big piece of his success. Speaking from my own experience, I've always played my best when my concern for winning has evaporated in the heat of my competitive effort. We all care about the result of the game, but if I let myself focus on who's going to score more points, or how I'm going to look on UltiVillage, or how big a jerk my opponent is and how much he deserves to lose, I'm just distracting myself from the next cut, the next throw, the next D. If, on the other hand, I give all of my energy to the intensity of my effort, I'm a better player. The less I focus on winning, the better my chances of winning are.
Such an attitude also improves the way I respond to adversity. If I think of my opponent as an opportunity to test my greatness, then the better he plays, the more psyched I get. His great play is nothing but a challenge for me to push my game higher. If, on the other hand, all I want out of competition is a "W" on the board, then my opponent's sweet layout grab feels like terrible misfortune. Did you see the look on Kurt Warner's face when the Steelers scored their go-ahead touchdown in last year's Superbowl? There was more than a minute left on the clock, but you knew the game was over. Poor Kurt would have preferred the Steelers hand him the game than really make him earn it.
I could read that look on Kurt Warner's face because I've worn that look, too. I fail the sportsman's test all the time. It's usually the inspiration of other players—the example of opponents like Russell; the example I want to set for my teammates—that helps me achieve greatness, if I do.
One of my prouder moments on an ultimate field happened early last season. Ironside is coming down on the pull, with Colin Mahoney sprinting down to cover me. The disc swings from the catch to the hitch, and I jog a lazy cut out into the lane. The throw goes up, and my hands are almost closed on it, when Colin dives and yanks it away. I call "Strip!" Colin pounds the ground, jumps up—he's about to scream, eyes bugging out of his head, mouth open in disbelief. He knows he just got a D. He takes a breath. "BVH, I got that." I take a breath. "Really?" Colin points to the disc, which is in his hand, not mine.
I'm still not 100% sure what the right call was, but here was my thought process:
0 seconds after the play: "Definitely a strip. I'm a beast of a receiver. I never get D'ed. Only possible explanation for me not catching a disc is a foul or a strip."
5 seconds: "Colin's a pretty honest guy. He looks really convinced. Is it possible his hand was on the disc first? Is it possible I didn't stop the rotation?"
10 seconds: "That play shouldn't have been close. If I bail out my half-assed effort now with an iffy call, then I'm letting myself develop bad habits."
15 seconds: "But don't I owe it to my teammates to uphold my call if there's any chance it was a strip?"
20 seconds: "People make bad calls when they're afraid, good calls when they're confident. What message do I want to send my team?"
"Ok, Colin. I trust you. No strip."
Two months later, we were playing again, and this time I got a layout D on Colin. Colin calls "Strip!" I say, "Really?" Pause. "Ok, BVH. No strip."